Man On Wire: James Marsh Interview
We caught up with director James Marsh to get the inside track on the making of his critically-acclaimed documentary. It follows the amazing true-life story of French high wire walker Philippe Petit, who, in 1974 illegally put a cable between the Twin Towers and spent 45 minutes walking across the rope. The film follows the run-up to the event as well as documenting Petit’s other high wire walks on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Notre Dame.
LOVEFiLM: How did you arrive upon Philippe Petit’s incredible story, and what was the reason for going back to documentary filmmaking after your first fiction film The King?
James Marsh: Well two reasons really. One is that The King wasn’t deemed to be a very successful film, so it wasn’t possible for me to carry on making another feature. The King was an American low-budget feature that didn’t make any money. It was a difficult experience all round… I got quite disillusioned both with the kind of culture of those kind of films and the whole experience was an uncomfortable and unhappy one in many ways. The King was a bloody cruel film, and that was one of the reasons why it wasn’t successful; it’s kind of mean.
Man On Wire has a couple of things that made it irresistible for me. What Philippe does is illegal and is also very subversive in a very general sense. I like that about him, it’s a really good combination. The group of these bohemian types from New York plotting something that is completely illegal; and yet what they are doing actually is really beautiful and artistic. The book was given to me by a producer and I read through it and I thought it was such an amazing story; really like a fairytale. So these are all reasons why Man on Wire was a really good film to step into.
LF: How did you first approach Philippe Petit with the idea of the project?
JM: Well that was interesting. We had a very awkward first phone conversation which didn’t go very well. Then I wrote him a letter which explained, in very passionate terms, why I had to make this film – and I was just gonna do it. We met and we got on really, really well. I sold him the idea of the film as a collaboration which is really what it turned out to be.
We were going to do this together and it was his story and I knew that. What we had to do was to talk a lot and understand exactly how to do this together. So in that respect, I think he was comfortable. You know we weren’t the first people to go along and try and make it out a story; there’s been a bunch of them. I think he liked my approach which was very open and very collaborative.
I felt was really important to have this kaleidoscope of stories which you could overlap and run parallel with each other which really creates human drama. It was a real collective effort, like any collective effort amongst people it’s fraught with disagreements and tensions and friction. You know a man’s life ultimately is at stake here, you know the stakes are incredibly high. And not every one is able to go through with it. Potentially it can be fatal; so in the film and we see one or two people involved who just back away and think it’s not possible and don’t see him surviving this. But it’s good to have all those overlapping accounts; it makes the film quite dynamic.
LF: What’s interesting is how well Philippe documented the run up to the event?
JM: Apart from the walk itself! He filmed many elements of the Australia coup – the one at Sydney Harbour Bridge. He tipped off the newspapers about the one at Notre Dame so that got filmed; and with the World Trade Centre he began to document that very extensively in France. You can see the spirit of all those people is really clear, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it – you just see young people doing something and doing something passionately.
LF: You can’t ignore the obvious relationship to the events of 9/11 when talking about the Twin Towers, but you never mention their destruction, was that a conscious decision from the beginning of production?
JM: Absolutely. Going into the project I just knew that I shouldn’t be confusing one story with the other. That said, I realised of course, my perspective and everyone else’s is going to be coloured, and perhaps even defined by the fact that those were destroyed the way they were.. But I think one can leave it up to the audience to make those connections, and understand it on that level for themselves.
I think it would be wrong of me to have discussed this event with the destruction of these buildings, in the context of this wonderful story that happened thirty years before. It really is about the birth of those buildings and the way in which they were used as a stage for this wonderful performance. If you want to make those connections then of course; but I didn’t make it obverse explicit whatsoever, in fact quite the opposite, I set a rule that I wasn’t going to do that.
LF: Looking at the images of Philippe walking across the Twin Towers – it almost defies expectation – how do you feel when you look at those images?
JM: I still now have a sort of awe about it even though I’ve been with this story for 18 months. The actual walk itself, the first step on the wire and the thinking of what it was like up there, and just kind of the awesomeness of it, I can’t think of any other word. It still thrills me to think about it even now. And you know, we don’t have any moving footage of the film, but we have these little photographs which capture, in a sense, how ephemeral it was and how dream like it was – it conjures up some kind of vision of a miracle up there.
LF: What’s really interesting about the film is Philippe talking about the event as a work of art – this isn’t just a caper or a silly stunt – it means more than that?
JM: A response I really enjoy - well one of my favourite moments in the film - is one of the archive video clips from the policeman who’s sent up there to arrest him. I do believe it’s a piece of art and that policeman gives it to you. He’s just a regular cop who’s presented with something that beautiful and he responds with a real lyricism to it. That’s the way to define the events that have witnessed it is that policemen shows you a response to an amazing thing. If there’s a question about whether it’s an artistic performance then there’s your answer.
LF: Ultimately, what do you think people take away from watching Man on Wire?
JM:. The responsibility was, in a sense, massive on this film because I knew this story was so perfect, the narrative is such a brilliant story; so I had a duty to do it as well as possible. I felt that I had to put on a good show here. And it’s a really great show. That’s how I found the story myself, so if I could translate that first response I had which was one of excitement and suspense and sweaty palms, and the walk on wire. If it got close to how I felt about it then I’m really happy.
LF: Having returned to key elements of documentary with Man on Wire, would you say you’re happy with this style of feature making as opposed to feature films?
JM: The problem with the work I’ve done before, like Wisconsin Death Trip, which is also an unusual art movie, is that neither of those films lead to anything else. In fact, all they led to was me being bankrupt and being unemployable for years afterwards. It felt like neither of those films allowed me to make the next film.
Man on Wire might be different. It was hard to make, I’m proud of it of course, it was made for a very small amount of money. I’m very proud of the performances in the film and I think it works as well as it could. But I don’t know about the distinction about genres, I see film as a blank canvas that you have to fill as best you can and keep people engaged with the story and engaged with the emotions. And a documentary can do that as well.
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